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38 Days to Change Scotland

Day 1

Saturday 18th Feb – Anstruther, East Neuk of Fife

As I checked the weather on my phone, to plan the last day of our wee family weekend away on the Fife coast, I spotted a message on my phone, from a friend’s sister, who knew SNP MSP Ash Regan.

My friend had told her sister about how Vive Ecosse had been impressed by Ash last year and that we were developing our crowdplatforming blog, podcast and campaign tools for progressing Independence, free to use. We had been messaging back and forth the night before, about campaigning and now I had a message to see if it was OK to pass my number on to Ash.

Absolutely! I assumed Ash wanted to have a chat about our campaigning ideas and maybe wanted to come on our podcast and looked forward to hearing from Ash.

Ash sent me a message within the hour and that’s where #voteAshRegan started.

What had started on Thursday, as a few days away by the sea with the family, walking the dog and pottering about the shops, with a planned Independence zoom meeting on the first night – post Anstruther fish & chips – turned out to be a weekend punctuated by zoom calls, messages and conversations, all about independence and the election of a new SNP leader.

The bombshell of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation announcement the day before, on Wednesday 15th February, that she was stepping down after nine years, had created ripples across the independence movement and beyond.

Folk were scrambling to understand why Nicola Sturgeon’s “plenty left in the tank”, from her post-Jacinda Ardern resignation interview with Laura Kuenssberg, only a few weeks before, appeared to have suddenly ‘sprung a leak’.

After dinner from the renowned Anstruther Fish Bar on the first night of our wee break, Vive Ecosse joined a Zoom call to discuss the formation of what is now known as the ‘Movement for Scottish Independence’ with representatives from Independence groups all across Scotland.

The following night, Friday, I got a call from another Independence friend about media enquiries into the SNP Finances police investigation – Operation Branchform. I told him that neither I nor the other ex-auditors I knew, had spoken to the media and it was not appropriate during a live police investigation. The conversation then moved on to Independence and the looming Leadership election as we discussed who we thought would be best placed to lead Scotland at this critical time.

Humza wasn’t mentioned by anyone I’d spoken to over years of discussions on independence, as an SNP or independence movement leadership contender but he was now being mooted as a potential candidate, along with others. I remembered a conversation the previous week on why it was odd that Humza and his wife had cancelled a legal action against a Dundee Nursery, that had been front page news when his wife stood, successfully, as a council candidate.

Kate Forbes had been widely regarded as a potential leader in waiting for a few years, just as her predecessor in the role of Finance and Economy Minister, Derek McKay had been, before his resignation in 2020. The timing of this election contest didn’t look ideal for Kate though, as she was on extended maternity leave until April.

It was considered by many inside and outside of the SNP that Angus Roberson had been brought into Holyrood in May 2021, as a ‘Brown’ to Sturgeon’s ‘Blair’ given the unusual circumstances following him not re-standing for Westminster in 2019, having lost his ‘safe’ seat in 2017 while he was the SNP’s Westminster Group Leader.

The subsequent ‘shenanigans’ over him then standing in Edinburgh Central in May 21, a seat Joanna Cherry KC MP had announced she would like to contest against then incumbent Tory leader Ruth Davidson, waa preceded by a series of odd events.

In the summer of 2020, as candidate selection started to be discussed, the then SNP National Executive Committee (NEC) had a strange epiphany on ‘dual mandates’ that they decided they had to rule on before National Conference.

The National Conference was scheduled for November and could/should have debated the merits of a change to selection rules. It was noted by many members that this hadn’t been a concern previously and that during the recent UK General Election in 2019, MEPs like the then NEC Policy Convener, Alyn Smith stood as candidates while remaining in MEP post – only resigning after a win. It also seemed an ironic focus for NEC, given the many ‘dual mandates’ of elected members like Alyn Smith, who also held key internal party roles on NEC.

Members had questioned Alyn Smith at our branch meeting, on this new NEC policy, which would put SNP seats and staff teams at risk during a global pandemic. We were told that it was to save money on a subsequent by-election, by holding it on the same day as the election. This was very odd as the SNP don’t control the running of a by-election and the eventual Airdrie and Shotts by-election to fill the resigning MP Neil Gray’s seat to allow him to stand as an SNP MSP candidates, after 18 months in post, was actually held a week after the Holyrood election on May 13th, at a cost reported to be over £100k.

Airdrie and Shotts 2015 General Election costs

Returning Officers’ services – £3,089
Polling station costs – £113,649
Postal vote costs – £16,270
Poll card costs – £22,962
Count costs – £25,935
Other costs – £13,888

When on NEC the following year, I asked if the same rules applied to councillors standing as MSPs. I’m still awaiting an actual answer but was told, instructively by a sitting councillor that, “you only have to go to one council meeting every six months” which I felt sure would be comforting for communities across Scotland trying to survive and recover from a global pandemic…

My own one-term Councillor was both my MSP and Councillor for a full year. It’s unlikely she’d have won a second term, especially if a second SNP candidate with a surname higher up the alphabet had also stood – such is the dice that STV elections with alphabetically ordered ballot papers, roll. Her husband then stood, unsuccessfully, for councillor in a different ward and again, unsuccessfully at a recent by-election.

Ash Regan’s name had come up more and more frequently, since she resigned from her ministerial role in the Scottish Government in October 2022 over her concerns about self-identification and lack of safeguarding for women and children in the GRR Bill.

Many people I had spoken with had been impressed with her conscience votes on GRR and her unequivocal position on the safeguarding of women’s and children’s rights.

I’ve yet to speak to anyone who can defend how this Bill was conducted and passed, by whipping of 3/4 parties against the most reasonable amendments, or the implementation conundrum it left for Police Scotland and public bodies across Scotland. As it was rushed through 100+ amendments, before Christmas recess – even if it had received Royal Assent these implementation issues would remain unresolved.

A Reconsideration Stage could have been called by The Cabinet Minister who moved the Bill, Shona Robinson but by mid January, The UK Secretary of State for Scotland had stopped the Bill reaching Royal Assent via a Section 35 order. Nicola Sturgeon declared with passion that her government would take this fight to the UK Government through the courts, thus making GRR a defacto devolution battleground.

Irony klaxon 🚨 that this passion to defend devolution was from the same First Minster who has announced less than two months earlier, that we should all accept the judgement of the Supreme Court on the pre-emptive reference from her own Lord Advocate, on Scottish Parliament’s competence to hold an advisory Independence Referendum!

The perfunctory response to that event was to announce an ‘emergency special conference’ 4 months later. Like the independence ‘secret plan’, this ‘special conference’ is yet to materialise as the Mother’s Day event on March 19th was cancelled when Nicola Sturgeon announced her own resignation less than a month after the S35 order was issued and a month before her ‘special conference’.

The smart money thinks GRR Bill outcome was designed to be a distracting tool that would result in more ‘on the shelf’ legislation like the Hate Crime Bill 2021 – which reaches its 2nd anniversary of being unimplemented in April 2023. Unimplemented legislation is the political equivalent of “don’t blame me, I tried”.

‘Progressive’ seems to be the new ‘HOPE’ for the SNP election branding team. Expect it in bold black lettering on yellow banners at future SNP events.

Mid-April is coincidentally also the deadline for the Scottish Government to raise a legal challenge to the UK Government’s S35 order, blocking GRR Bill from Royal Assent via the legislative rule book of our devolution, The Scotland Act.

I assume Scotland’s Lord Advocate who brought a pre-emptive reference to the Supreme Court for advice on the legal competence of a draft Indy Referendum Bill, will have her legal advice on a S35 challenge, listened to, in determining the merits of taking the UK Government through the Court of Session, Outer and Inner houses and onto the Supreme Court.

One of the Supreme Court’s former justices, Lord Hope has opined on the validity of S35 in these particular circumstances, alongside legal experts on Discrimination Law, Naomi Cunningham and on Public and Constitutional Law, Dr Michal Foran, at the Women and Equalities Select Committee in February at Westminster, following the issuing of the S35 order in January this year.

The parting line on the call from my friend on Friday night was, “you should reach out to Ash”. I told him I didn’t know Ash personally but we knew some friends in common, mainly from the Woman’s Protests on Self-Identification. Friends had liked what we’d all seen of Ash and had been very impressed by her impassioned speech outside Parliament in December.

Later on Friday night I had a few more calls and message exchanges with those I consider to be wise heads in Scotland about the tectonic events that were coming thick and fast in Scottish politics. My head was buzzing as I went to bed, trying to make sense of what might unfold in the coming weeks.

The early morning text from Ash’s friend focused my mind on the key event of the impending SNP Leadership contest and mapped out the next 38 days for Vive Ecosse.

I replied with,

Happy to help do what I can to bring democracy back to our politics and Ash is a breath of fresh air for critical thinking so lacking in too many in HR. 

My number is …..

I got a message back from Ash within the hour, sent her some information on Vive Ecosse and we arranged to have a call later that day. I called Graeme, explained the background and he agreed it would be a good idea to have a call later and see what Ash needed from us.

We had our first group call with Ash, Graeme and me early on Saturday evening. Ash told us that she was announcing her candidacy for nomination in the Sunday Mail, so we knew the candidacy would be live by 10 pm that night on social media. There was work to do!

The contest was on.

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